Shudder brings the best of shocking French extreme horror to American audiences, and if this is your maiden voyage, buckle up tightly.
The words for “love” and “death” in French sound remarkably similar when spoken aloud. “L’amour” and you’re in love; “la mort” and you’re underground.
Any Francophile understands this is a feature and not a bug of our old allies. French art is littered with the complicated relationship between love and death, sex and violence, the beautiful and the grotesque.
While we, as a horror community, often focus on the technicolor violence of the Italians (where would we be without gialli?) or the skin-crawling hauntings of Japanese ghost stories, many of us understand and agree to a certain fundamental truth; if you can handle French horror, you can handle anything.
French horror is extreme, not only because of the raw and unflinching acts of physical violence (more on that later) but also because of the very French compulsion to add a healthy dose of existential dread to their terror. Additionally, much of the extreme French horror violates the sacred, as well as the trappings, themes, and places we’ve come to consider safe and protected.
Love and death, in equal measures, blended and spoken in blurred phrases until we are not certain if we are looking at la mort or l’amour.
And perhaps no film of any nationality represents that better than…
Generally speaking, if you’ve seen one French horror film, this is it. Haute Tension (or, High Tension, whichever you prefer) is a difficult movie to discuss without ripping the band-aid off and acknowledging, here and now: it’s got a twist. And friends, it’s a dumb one. A really shitty, unearned, retroactively ruining the narrative kind of twist.
I won’t ruin it for you, in case you’re considering watching the film.
I will say this; Haute Tension is a nearly perfect little ball of nastiness without the twist.
To acknowledge those themes we talked about, you remember, back in paragraph one, we were so young then, Haute Tension begins with two friends on any idyllic getaway at a family farm. And what could be more sacred than a well-loved family home? Things go to hell in a ham sandwich pretty quickly. For whatever complaints I may harbor against the movie, Alexandre Aja’s direction certainly doesn’t factor into that list of negatives. He quickly makes a devastating impact, leaving most of the family dead, one of our heroines kidnapped, and the other pursuing her.
There is, throughout, a strong romantic underpinning (the movie is called Switchblade Romance in the UK). It’s apparent early on that Marie (Cecile de France) is in love with Alex (Maiwenn) and that her continued efforts to rescue her are more than platonic.
It’s not a great movie, though it’s so goddamn close I found myself resenting it. If it just hadn’t included the worst possible twist…
Haute Tension bears a more than passing resemblance to the Dean Koontz novel, Intensity — so much so that the author actively denounced the film. If you are familiar with that source material, it may be a good metric for whether or not Haute Tension is a good option for viewing pleasure.
It is gnarly, extremely well-paced, and beautifully acted. And it’s worth noting that with every twist in the history of twists, somebody hates it, somebody loves it. La mort c’est l’amour.
Oh boy. This one’s ROUGH. Not because it’s not good; it’s really fucking good. But it is brutal.
L’interior, as you’ve probably deduced, means Inside in English. The titular inside refers to a mother’s womb — establishing quickly and readily that this is a very particular kind of violence and decidedly not for everyone.
I rented L’Interior a million years ago with my very game mother, knowing virtually nothing about it. It was fine for us, but it won’t be for everyone. So I am not going to grant it the same courtesy I gave Haute Tension. I’m about to spoil the shit out of it. Please feel free to not read the words I’m about to write.
L’Interior is a home invasion movie about one grieving mother attempting to cut another woman’s baby out of her stomach with a big-ass pair of scissors. On Christmas Eve, no less. Remember what I said about the French violating all our warm fuzzies? L’Interior puts motherhood itself and Christmas Eve in its crosshairs and unrelentingly punishes the audience.
Look, it’s a really good movie. And if you have the spoons for it, yes, by all means, check that shit out.
Just know that it’s an extremely brutal watch, both physically and emotionally, and you may need to cocoon with some Bob’s Burgers for one to four hours after watching it.
Remember when I said L’Interior was rough? Well, I meant it. But only because rough probably isn’t a strong enough word for Martyrs.
Beneath the horrific violence and series of absolutely never unseeable images, there are some heavy philosophical considerations about the nature of religious fanaticism and the dangers of the true believer. It’s a clever, brutal movie that punishes its audience almost as much as it does its heroine.
And good lord, does poor Anna (Morjana Alaoui) go THROUGH it.
Without giving away too much of the game, Anna is made the vessel for transcendental communication by a pretty fucking brutal cult. In the hands of the French, the quest for knowledge and divinity becomes profane — an act of violence readily committed on others when the seekers would never undertake such horrific acts of self-mutilation.
I won’t detail the acts of violence performed in Martyrs. It’s a very good, profound, and troubling movie, and if you can stomach it, it’s worth your time. However, there’s certainly no shame in avoiding it. We all have our limits. Mine is Audition. I’m too scared to watch it, and I don’t feel bad about that.
And if you think Martyrs is too much for you…well, it probably is. And there’s no shame in that. It’s a visceral, haunting, and pretty gross movie. It is not for everyone.
And perhaps “not for everyone” is the defining phrase of French extreme horror. I’ve enjoyed much of it a great deal, but I have been watching horror since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I’ve been training, you see.
French horror, like French literature, is best suited to people who sometimes like to feel pretty bad. It’s a bummer! It’s kind of beautiful!
Remember, they who made brie also made the guillotine.
It’s not for everyone. But, if you think you’re up to the challenge, you could do much worse than these three movies. Just….make sure you have enough wine. And don’t try to eat during them. And allow at least several hours to feel like absolute dogshit afterward. It’ll be worth it.